THE FOOT WHISPERER
MOVIE STARS, SPORTS STARS AND ROCK STARS HAVE WALKED IN THEM – EVEN THE ODD POPE. MORESCHI’S ATTENTION TO QUALITY AND DETAIL MAKES IT THE MICHELIN-STARRED RESTAURANT OF SHOEMAKERS.
Moreschi of Vigevano may not be a household name, but it counts many among the buyers of its superb loafers.
GianBeppe Moreschi is reluctant to name the Hollywood stars, sheiks, world leaders and athletes who have put his sumptuous shoes on their feet over the decades. But in a glass cabinet above his factory in the northern Italian town of Vigevano, the 83-year-old proudly displays two pairs of red leather shoes: they are copies of the ones made as gifts for popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. “What good fortune,” Moreschi, a devout Catholic, says with a wry smile. Moreschi delivered Pope John Paul’s pair to him personally in Rome, while Pope Benedict made global headlines in 2007 when he visited Vigevano and collected 15,001 pairs of shoes: 15,000 donated by local business people to distribute to the poor, and one supple pair of loafers for himself.
The company coyly reveals its shoes have also been worn by actors Richard Burton and Liam Neeson, music legends Michael Jackson and Johnny Cash, and athletes including Novak Djokovic and Michael Jordan. But most of its well-heeled clients prefer to remain anonymous. Or at least allow their feet to do the talking.
The footwear manufacturer was founded by Moreschi’s father, Mario, in 1946, when Vigevano had a thriving leather industry. Many of its rivals have since disappeared as rising costs and diminishing returns took their toll and sent production and jobs elsewhere. But Moreschi has flourished and the family’s range of shoes for men and women is now sold in 80 countries, including in Australia at the luxury retail store, Harrolds. “My father decided to produce men’s shoes of the highest quality,” says GianBeppe, the company chairman. “When you buy a pair of Moreschi shoes there are 70 years of history inside them.”
From humble beginnings Moreschi has grown into a global manufacturer that employs 300 people – often three generations from the same family – and produces more than 250,000 pairs of shoes a year.
GianBeppe took over in 1957 when his father died suddenly, and has continued to expand its vision. Now his three sons, Mario, Stefano and Francesco, run the company’s operations inside a gleaming white headquarters spanning 65,000sqm. Surrounded by stunning parkland, the site includes a huge factory, offices, outlet store and a staff nursery.
The global headquarters sits on the outskirts of a quaint town that once hosted Renaissance artists Leonardo Da Vinci and Donato Bramante, but here the latest technology is combined with the best of Italy’s artisanal tradition. “People are proud to wear our shoes because they feel they are wearing a superior product that is very comfortably made with high-quality materials that last longer than usual,” says Mario Moreschi, sales director and head of operations.
Fifty-four-year-old Mario, named after his grandfather, developed a passion for the business at a young age. “I was almost born in the factory,” he says. “I still remember my first pair of Moreschi shoes, I think I was 12 years old. It was a handstitched beige moccasin with a matching beige lizardskin on the apron of the shoe.” These days the father of three has many more pairs at his fingertips. Asked to name a favourite style he points to the elegant loafers on his feet and lifts one up in the air. “I really love to wear these in a hand-painted chestnut colour, which has a glazed finish like a mirror,” he says. “I wear the same in navy blue, black and brown suede. My closet is full of the same style and for every colour I have three pairs of each. Maybe I am boring. But these are my shoes, these are my icon.”
As Moreschi reflects on his personal preferences inside a sparse office, an army of male and female workers dressed in crisp white coats are toiling along a vast production line that snakes around the luminous factory below. Before their daily shift ends they will have produced 1500 pairs of shoes.
Sewing machines are humming along a computerised production line but tiny hammers can also be heard tapping in what seems like a throwback to another era. Managers use bicycles to zip across spotless concrete floors from one department to another as computers spit out data for the dedicated craftsmen and women assembling soles, uppers, insoles and heels.
“It is a quality product made with the hands of workers who have technical knowledge and style,” says Adriano Roberto, the production manager, who started his career as a warehouse assistant 34 years ago. His parents worked for Moreschi, so does his brother, and his daughter is hoping to join the firm in the future.
“You need to have the experience and knowledge about the product and how it is created,” he says. “Today there is no one who makes shoes like we make them. It is beautiful to be part of this company.”
Everything begins with the finest raw materials and Moreschi’s enormous 300m-long leather vault is considered to be “the showpiece” of the company. Shelves are laden with skins from around the world in a warehouse that feels more like a wine cellar. On floor-to-ceiling shelves there is supple calf’s leather from France, kangaroo skin from Australia and goatskin from Nigeria as well as crocodile, ostrich, lizard and
python in an array of colours. Carefully catalogued, there are enough hides and leathers lying here to satisfy a year’s production.
Temperatures inside the vault are kept between 16C and 18C and humidity is kept at around 70 per cent during a maturation period lasting at least six months to ensure the leather’s softness and flexibility. Mario Moreschi says there’s no room for compromise.
“If Ferrari or Bentley started to use low-quality paint for the body of the car or other fabrics instead of genuine leather interiors, it would kill the product and lose the confidence of the customers,” he says. “What is important is to carry on producing the original Moreschi shoes that we have made in the past.”
In the modelling department across the corridor, designers and technicians analyse shapes and produce computerised models drawn from wooden forms that date back decades. Once the models have been approved, the leather is cut by hand or digital laser cutters that use only the best of the hide.
As the aroma of leather wafts through the factory, soles and uppers area assembled on the production line according to precise data. There is extraordinary attention to detail as each of these modern-day cobblers start to give the shoes shape as they move along conveyor belts and carousels.
“You can’t invent things in two seconds,” says Stefano Moreschi, who runs the company’s retail operations. “To make a pair of Moreschi shoes there are between 250 and 350 manual steps.” There are different types of manufacturing for shoes, soft loafers and rubber-soled sneakers and some models are made up of 15 pieces. The highest-quality shoes are assembled in a process called “Goodyear” in which the welt (the strip that runs along the edge of the outsole) is sewn on to the insole and the upper part of the shoe before being joined to the sole with double stitching to reinforce the shoe’s durability and strength without sacrificing any of its elegance.
Elsewhere in the factory loafers are produced from a type of “leather tube” that is softly shaped around the sole of the foot before being transferred to an artisan who uses a needle and thread to attach the top flap to the rest of the shoe by hand. Fifty-six-year-old Nat Parilla takes his needle and demonstrates how it’s done, in another moment that seems straight out of the past. “It’s a beautiful tradition,” says Parilla, who joined Moreschi as a teenager more than 40 years ago.
Moreschi also takes pride in hand-dyeing its leather. Working from a neutral base, experts take a white cloth and gradually colour parts of the shoe or its entire surface in a delicate process. Then the leather is “ironed” at a temperature of 130C to seal the colour before the shoe is polished several times in a process called “caramelisation”. “The hand-coloured shoes are definitely one of my favourites,” says Stefano. “You look at your shoes and you think, ‘Should I walk outside or just wear them inside?’ It is easy to ruin them.”
In an exclusive arrangement with Tuscan wine producer Marquis Antinori, clients can even have their bespoke calfskin shoes coloured dark purple with the residue of crushed grapes. A 2011 magnum of Antinori’s Guado Al Tasso wine is included on delivery with an invitation to visit the family’s Bolgheri vineyards.
Elsewhere on the production line experts are handpainting and polishing the holes and fine edges of the shoes before they go through rigorous quality control and final packaging. Clients who opt for made-tomeasure can also design their own shoes.
“We have customers who may seem fussy but some of them have incredible taste,” says Stefano. “They combine a couple of things or make a request and I see the shoes and I think ‘ I thought he was crazy but these are great’. We are like a restaurant à la carte.”
Stefano Moreschi says the UK and Europe have traditionally been the company’s strongest markets but the brand is also popular in Russia, the Middle East, Japan and other parts of Asia. He sees plenty of potential in the US and in Australia through Moreschi’s partnership with Harrolds. “It’s a top store with professional people who understand and know the product and how to sell it,” says Moreschi. “Every salesman in our stores has been trained in the factory, they know how our shoes are made – it is a must or they can’t be on the selling floor.”
John Poulakis, the founder of Harrolds, has stocked Moreschi shoes in his Sydney, Melbourne and Gold Coast stores for eight years. He says his clients recognise the style and workmanship invested in every Moreschi shoe. “It’s a shoe that people admire when they see it for the first time,” Poulakis says. “It is a comfortable shoe and the styling is impeccable at the right price.” Moreschi shoes sell for $650 to $900 in Australia and Poulakis says the brand has developed a loyal following among clients aged 30 and over. “The refined European styling is what appeals to our clientele,” he says.
As well as its partnerships with stores such as Harrolds, Moreschi has 40 of its own stores in Italy and around the world. Its flagship store is located in Piazza San Babila in the heart of Milan’s vibrant fashion district. The three-storey building has rich brown marble floors, wood panelling and leather armchairs that give it the feel of an elegant living room. Classic styles, loafers and rubber-soled sneakers fill the shelves and sales assistants chat about customer loyalty and their passion for footwear.
“We don’t want just to sell a beautiful product but to share our passion for the artisans’ tradition,” says Davide Luparia, assistant store manager, who admits he has 50 pairs of shoes in his closet at home. “When customers try the shoes they feel the difference and often buy two or three pairs. We sometimes see clients with shoes that are still in the most beautiful condition after 12 years.”
Prices start at around €280 ($410) for deerskin sneakers and rise to €2500 for a classic model in black crocodile skin. Those looking to indulge can spend up to €12,000 on a bespoke loafer made of crocodile skin in a colour of their choice and edged in silver or gold.
Fashion is deconstructing what we wear socially and professionally in the 21st century. But as the Moreschi brothers look to their own children to take the business into a fourth generation, they are adamant there will be no shortcuts or outsourcing to threaten the quality or craftsmanship of their products. “We have believed in ‘made in Italy’ since 1946 and at the end of the day it gives you a reputation and a tradition. It’s about the heritage of the brand,” says Mario. “To go in another direction like mass production of trainers and runners is not for us. We have to give real quality and real tradition. We are like a Michelin-starred restaurant for shoes.”
“We sometimes see clients with shoes that are still in the most beautiful condition after 12 years.”
Loafers and laceups are drawn, hand-coloured, sewn and polished at the Moreschi factory.